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Italy, Germany, Spain, France win qualifiers

DEFENDING champion Italy moved into strong position to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with a victory last night, when Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands also picked up wins.

Andrea Pirlo converted a penalty kick in the 11th minute and Giampaolo Pazzini scored on his international debut in Italy's 2-0 victory at Montenegro.

Germany routed visiting Liechtenstein 4-0 in other European qualifiers, while Spain beat visiting Turkey 1-0, France won 1-0 at Lithuania, and the Netherlands beat visiting Scotland 3-0. In an exhibition, England beat Slovakia 4-0.

In South America, Argentina routed Venezuela 4-0 in Diego Maradona's first official match as coach, Uruguay defeated Paraguay 2-0 and Colombia beat Bolivia 2-0.

In Asian qualifying, Celtic midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura's free kick proved the difference as Japan beat Bahrain 1-0 to replace Australia atop Group A with 11 points.

Uzbekistan thrashed Qatar 4-0 at home for its first win of the round and joined Bahrain and Qatar on four points, six behind Australia - which had the weekend off and faces Uzbekistan in Sydney on Wednesday.

The South Koreans (8 points) had the weekend off, allowing North Korea to replace them atop Group B on 10 points following a 2-0 win over UAE at Pyongyang.

Saudi Arabia rediscovered some form with a 2-1 comeback win over Iran away at Tehran, where a reported 100,000 fans attended the match. The Saudis moved to third place in the group with seven points, one ahead of Iran.

In North and Central America and the Caribbean, the United States rallied from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 draw at El Salvador, Mexico defeated visiting Costa Rica 2-0, and Trinidad and Tobago scored late for a 1-1 draw against visiting Honduras.

In Africa, Togo defeated visiting Cameroon 1-0.

Italy leads Europe Group Eight with 13 points, two ahead of Ireland, which was held to a 1-1 draw by visiting Bulgaria. The Azzurri host Ireland on Wednesday night in Bari.

"We received a gift penalty which we did not entirely deserve," Italy coach Marcello Lippi said. "We played much better in the second half, deserving the important victory."

Michael Ballack and Daniel Jansen scored in the first nine minutes for Germany, and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski added second-half goals.

Germany leads Group Four with 13 points, four ahead of second-place Russia, which defeated Azerbaijan 2-0 on goals by Roman Pavlyuchenko and Konstantin Zyryanov.

"This was a must-win, and we did our job," Germany coach Joachim Loew said. "We could have scored the odd goal here or there, but I am satisfied. We were really motivated to push forward early and then had a stretch in the first half where we didn't play very strong. But we knew they would be packed in defensively and hardly come out offensively."

European champion Spain extended its unbeaten streak to 30 games since November 2006 as Gerard Pique scored in the 61st minute.

Spain opened a six-point lead in Group Five over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which beat Belgium 4-2. Turkey, which hasn't beaten Spain in 55 years, fell into third. Spain travels to play Turkey on Wednesday.

Franck Ribery scored for France from 21 yards off a pass from Yoann Gourcuff in the 67th minute.

France is third in Group Seven with seven points, five behind Serbia, which won 3-2 at Romania, and two behind Lithuania.

"This France team is in the process of growing, of building itself," coach Raymond Domenech said. "The players had that desire. They know what a World Cup means. Everybody is fighting to play it. We will hang tough until the end."

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt scored to help the Netherlands take a major step toward qualifying.

Huntelaar headed in Mark van Bommel's cross from 6 yards in the 30th minute, and van Persie headed in Arjen Robben's corner in first-half stoppage time. Kuyt converted a penalty kick in the 77th after Christophe Berra fouled Huntelaar in the penalty area.

The Netherlands leads Group Nine with 12 points, followed by Scotland and Iceland with four each.

Portugal and Sweden played to a scoreless draw. Denmark, which won 3-0 at Malta, and Hungary, a 1-0 winner at Albania, top Group One with 10 points, followed by Portugal, Sweden and Albania with six each.

With Group Six off until Wednesday, David Beckham set up a goal after entering at the start of the second half, passing Bobby Moore for second place on England's appearances list behind goalkeeper Peter Shilton (125).

Switzerland joined Greece atop Europe Group Two with a 2-0 win at Moldova. Greece conceded a 55th-minute equalizer by Omer Golan to tie 1-1 at Israel after Fanis Gekas had put the former European champions ahead in the 42nd.

At Buenos Aires, Lionel Messi scored in the 25th minute. Carlos Tevez (47th), Maxi Rodriguez (52nd) and Sergio Aguero (73rd) added second-half goals.

"It was a perfect game," Maradona said. "Reality is always stranger than fiction."

Hired last Nov. 4 following a loss to Chile that led to Alfio Basile's resignation, Maradona is considered Argentina's greatest player. He coached the Albiceleste to exhibition victories over Scotland and France.

Argentina is second in South American qualifying with 19 points, four behind Paraguay, which lost 2-0 yesterday at Uruguay.

Argentina plays at Bolivia on Wednesday.

"Of course there have to be some adjustments, but with this result it's easier to make changes," Maradona said.


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